Jackson lawmakers question motive in possible JPS takeover

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Fred Anklam Jr., Mississippi Today

Mississippi State Capitol

Democratic legislators on Tuesday expressed concern to State Education Superintendent Carey Wright that her agency’s threat to take over the Jackson Public Schools is just another case of state officials meddling in the city’s affairs.

“I’m not saying these aren’t problems, but … we already have enough issues in this city,” said Rep. Jarvis Dortch, D-Jackson. “We’ve had our airport taken, we have Rankin County Republicans saying they want to put us under city management, and now we have people from the (Department of Education) taking over the school district.”

Dortch’s comment went to the expressed theme of the meeting legislators called with Wright: Determining whether the Education Department’s investigation into Jackson Public Schools is related to some state lawmakers’ apparent desire to seize control of some governmental entities from Jackson officials.

Jackson officials, including legislators, have grown increasingly anxious over what they see as efforts by the Republican-led legislative leadership to wrest political and economic power from the Democratic-controlled capital city.

When the Legislature forced through a bill during the 2016 legislative session to give state leaders the authority to pick the members of the Jackson airport, local Democratic leaders cast the move as an attempted takeover of valuable city-owned property. A number of Jackson city officials — including the mayor and city council, who currently appoint members to the airport board — sued to block the legislation from going into effect. That case is pending in federal court.

Legislation to create a Capitol-area improvement district, although favored by political leaders, met with opposition from community groups. The proposal, sponsored by Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, would have created a special district stretching roughly from Jackson State University to the Eastover neighborhood with a state commission to oversee infrastructure improvements. When the bill was amended to appoint a special judge to preside over criminal cases that originated in that district, Jackson officials protested and the bill was killed.

And during a Facebook debate between Republican officials in May, state Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, suggested the Legislature might “pass a conservator law for municipalities like we have for school districts.” Later, Baker said that he was only looking at the possibility of such legislation, but had not drafted a bill.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright

In the Tuesday afternoon meeting with the legislators, Wright and other officials discussed problems they’ve continued to see in some Jackson schools, difficult interactions with district officials and the steps the district must take to avoid state takeover.

Wright also warned Jackson Public Schools officials later Tuesday that state takeover of the district is an imminent possibility.

An audit of the district done by the Mississippi Department of Education earlier this year revealed a host of problems in the schools. The deficiencies ranged from failing to maintain a safe school environment and incomplete or missing records proving students who graduated had actually completed graduation requirements.

The audit noted schools were regularly without fire extinguishers, evacuation plans and smoke detectors. Officials also saw broken widows, air conditioners and inoperable toilets.

While district leaders have since said say they are working to correct these problems, state officials said last week they have continued to observe major problems in some schools and will be conducting unannounced visits in January.

State officials also said there seems to be no sense of urgency among district officials to fix dire issues.

On top of Jackson Public Schools’ accreditation status being downgraded to “probation” as a result of the audit, the district received an F rating from the state in the latest round of accountability grades. Soon after, former Superintendent Cedrick Gray resigned. The district is still without a permanent leader.

Throughout the meeting with lawmakers Tuesday, Wright maintained that the state department “has absolutely no desire to take over Jackson Public Schools.” But lawmakers in the meeting expressed skepticism over those claims, citing the previous state attempts to seize control of various Jackson entities.

Wright and the Education Department’s Office of Accreditation Director Paula Vanderford laid out many items from the previous audit of the district, as well as some follow up visit details from just last week.

Wright said some schools had buses, teachers and students arriving to schools at 9:30 a.m. or later. Schools across the state, which are required by law to provide 330 minutes of instruction per day, typically begin the school day at 7:30 a.m. or 8 a.m. In one school, a student tripped a metal detector and walked into the school without being searched by resource officers. In another school, a teacher taught the wrong academic lesson to the wrong subject.

“And those were just from this past week,” Wright said. “The audit (from earlier this year) lists all kinds of examples. There were children that walked the stage in JPS that did not have enough credits to walk the stage because the record keeping was so poor. Now we have kids with diplomas who did not earn diplomas.”

In addition to questioning the objectivity of the audit reports and investigation, the Jackson delegation wanted to know the next steps of the takeover process.

Wright said that if the district didn’t show a sense of urgency to correct specific problems listed in corrective action reports, a state takeover could occur as early as January. If a takeover occurs, Wright told a Jackson Public Schools meeting Tuesday night, Jackson parents could choose to send their children to other districts, Jackson athletics teams would receive a postseason ban next school year and all district employees would become at-will employees, meaning they could be fired for any reason.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, asked education officials how long it might take for JPS to get a clean bill of health. Education Department officials estimated it would take “about 12 to 18 months to reboot all deficiencies on record.”

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. John Horhn, D-Hinds

“I think you can appreciate, especially given the tenor of the times we’ve had (in Jackson), especially in the last year, that we look with alarm when you start to talk about takeover,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson. “We will do our part to encourage JPS to move forward with this batch (of specific complaints) and address these issues. We hope that you all will take a common sense approach to how you look at the remedies we put in place.”

“For us, takeover is not an option,” Horhn said.

Mississippi Today reporters Kate Royals and R.L. Nave contributed to this report.